(Posing on a bridge across one of the prettiest canals in Venice)
Previous Memories of Venice:
Every time I return to Venice, I realize that it is one of my favorite places on earth. My mind always goes back to my first entry into the city, 21 years ago, when having had my backpack containing my camera stolen in Amsterdam, I had been sad and depressed for a whole week. Then, I arrived in Venice and my spirits lifted as if by magic. I can remember the therapeutic effect the city had on me as I walked with my French friend Chantal with whom I had traveled through a part of Western Europe by Eurail. Admonishing myself for having allowed a week to go by while I grieved for my lost belongings, I told myself to rejoice in the beauty of the city and its uniqueness. And so it is always with a sense of hope and optimism that I return to this Medieval city of a million canals.
Then, five years ago, Llew, Chriselle and I had stopped briefly in Venice just so that I could show them this city that I so adore. Unfortunately, it was the middle of January and dreadfully cold—indeed it was the coldest day in the Veneto in 25 years– and Chriselle was freezing. After we had taken the mandatory tour of the Doges Palace (above left), she cocooned herself in McDonald’s, the only place where she could sit nursing a hot chocolate and writing in her journal as she couldn’t face the thought of roaming on the icy streets–no matter how gorgeous the architecture– in those sub-zero temperatures. I recall how desperate gondoliers came right up to us, willing to lower their prices considerably in order to attract a few passenger that day. Alas, they had absolutely no takers and their lovely vessels idled in the canals as we burrowed lower into our coats.
Return to Venice:
This time round, I was delighted to see the sun rise on the Grand Canal (left), for Amy and I had arrived in the city on the Night Train from Naples at the crack of dawn at 5.15 am to be precise. Though neither of us had slept a wink despite the fact that we had booked a couchette—or bed for the night—a caffe latte at the cafeteria which opened at 6.05 am saw us nursing the comforting drink in our hands and awaiting the opening of the vaporetto (water-bus) ticket kiosks right outside the main station of Santa Lucia or Ferrovia as it is known. When the ticket clerk did make an appearance, we bought a 72 hour or three day pass for 31 Euros which allows unlimited use of the vaporetto for that length of time. This proved invaluable as our lodgings were on the island of Guidecca and I happened to be attending a conference that week on the remote island of San Servolo which could only be reached by vaporetto and since Amy and I love glass jewelry so much, we made not one but two trips to the Island of Murano where the glass works are located—not to mention the fact that we also sailed to the famous Lido, the island that houses the Beach resort at which the rich and famous congregate. Overall, that was probably the best 31 Euros we spent on our entire travels in Italy as it made our lives very simple indeed. It wasn’t long before Amy mastered the map of the water-bus routes as well as their timings and was reading timetables like a pro.
Residing on Guidecca:
The island of Guidecca (left) is largely empty, save for a few local people who actually make their homes there. We had rented accommodation at the Junghans Residenze which contained very comfortable en suite double rooms and came with the comforts of a 24 hour security and concierge service. After taking a quick nap, we set out that day to discover Venice and to chalk out our plans for exploring the city. What a relief it was, after braving the tornado on the ferry to Capri and surviving the downpour in Naples to see sunshine streaming through our windows. Enticed by the light to investigate our view, we were thrilled that it overlooked a charming cobbled square that was reached across a narrow canal via a picturesque bridge (on which Amy poses below).
Right opposite our room was a red-brick colored house (above left) with its own enclosed courtyard garden over whose walls fragrant jasmine in full bloom tumbled, scenting the entire square (above right). It seemed to greet us each day as we made our way past the square to arrive at the main canal stop at Palanca.
(Vignettes of the participants at the EACLALS Triennial Convention–Mahnaz, Minu and Rochelle at Venice International University on the island of San Servolo)
(Meenakshi Mukherjee, Rochelle and Nandita Ghosh–left–and Rochelle with old Oxford friend Annalisa Oboe–right–at the EACLALS Triennial Convention Dinner-Dance)
The Basilica of San Marco:
There are two Must See-Must Do Items on the list of any first-time tourist to Venice—The Doges’ (or Ducal) Palace and the Basilica of San Marco (left)–St. Mark being the patron saint of Venice). Since Llew, Chriselle and I had taken the tour of the Palace, just five years ago, and I remembered almost everything rather clearly, I told Amy to take the tour on her own when I was busy at the EACLALS Trienniale Conference on San Servolo. Instead, joined by my friend and NYU colleague Mahnaz, who was also attending the conference, we decided to explore the Basilica. I had seen it 20 years ago, but remembered almost nothing and, five years ago, when I was last there, Mass was in progress when we arrived and visitors had been prohibited from entering the church.
A queue had already formed at 9.10 am when we arrived there and right before my eyes, it stretched all the way to the Grand Canal in a matter of minutes. Standing in it for about half an hour gave me the opportunity to study the exterior in minute detail and to marvel at the confection of elaborate artistry that it is all about. Above the main door is a mosaic of the Ascension of Christ (left) in all His glory while right next to it is one of the Body of St. Mark being rescued from Alexandria and brought to Venice. Four giant horses, replicas of the gilded bronze originals, tower above the façade, a statue of St. Mark flanked by angels crowns the main dome and Romanesque carvings adorn the main pillars at the front entrance. It is truly one of the most decorative of Western churches and one can gaze at it for at least an hour and keep noticing new elements at which to marvel.
Exploring the Basilica of St. Mark:
At 9.30, the line began moving slowly and we were able to enter to view the stunning mosaic work on the walls and ceiling. The first thing that occurs to the visitor on beholding the interior is that it is different from anything one has seen in any other Italian church. And quite rightly—for the Basilica is designed in true Byzantine style with ornamental cupola and five domes, the interior of each being covered by glimmering gold mosaic pieces that depict scenes from the Bible. Of these, the most famous are the domes featuring the Ascension and the Pentecost. These fabulous mosaics were executed in the 12th century, at a time when the influence of Byzantium extended throughout the Western world. I could just imagine how they must glitter whether lit by the softness of candlelight or the more powerful reflections of the grand chandeliers that adorn the church.
When the eye has stopped admiring the ceiling, one can turn one’s attention downwards to the flooring or what is referred to in art books as the ‘pavement’. It is hard to say which one of the two elements is more awesome—the ceiling or the pavement. The latter is crafted entirely of variegated marble in what is called the Pietra Dura design forming a kind of grand Oriental carpet in stone. In small pieces and in large expanses, this inlaid marble and the effect it produces is little short of spectacular.
A tour of the church takes the visitors to the various chapels or altars featuring, among other patron saints of Italy, the Madonna di Nicopeia, a Byzantine icon that is one of Italy’s most revered images.
The Splendor of the Pala D’Oro:
However, it is behind the Baldacchino or altar canopy that is composed of four finely carved alabaster columns that the greatest sight in Venice is concealed. In order to view this, the visitor is asked to pay 2 Euros—certainly the most worthwhile item on which to spend a couple of bucks. This is the Pala D’Oro or Curtain of Gold. This altarpiece created by medieval goldsmiths in the 10th century is studded with a total of 2,000 precious and semi-precious gems that encircle the enameled portraits of a multitude of saints set into at least 250 panels. I found it impossible to take my eyes away from this treasure and would rank it as among the most beautiful things that I have ever seen. Not only is it a remarkable manifestation of the great wealth of the Doges (or Venetian rulers) but it is an extraordinary work of metallic craftsmanship the likes of which cannot easily be reproduced today.
Then, we made our way to the Treasury (paying another 3 Euros), a series of three small rooms that are crammed with the loot plundered from Byzantium (later called Constantinople and now called Istanbul) in the year 1204 which is usually referred to as the most successful of the Crusades. Crucibles, bowls, candlesticks, drinking cups, bookstands, and other precious items make it impossible to place a value on the plunder in today’s market. In another room are relics and receptacles to house them—bones and teeth and hair of Christians revered for their devotion to their faith, many of whom were subsequently canonized as saints. The enormous interest contained within the Basilica makes it necessary to allot at least two hours to view all its treasures at leisure.
Piazza San Marco:
Emerging into the bright sunlight of the morning about 11. 30 am, we surveyed the grandeur of the Piazza San Marco which is one of Europe’s greatest squares—not only in terms of its astounding size, but for the architectural elements and its design. Walking under the columned arcades that surround the square, we (Mahnaz, Amy and I–left) took in the luxury goods offered by the upscale stores (jewelry made of gold and precious stones, Murano glassware, uniquely designed clothing and footwear) and the classical music emerging from a small group of chamber musicians who played Mozart for our listening pleasure. Despite the fact that the sun could not have been brighter, the skies blues and the water in the canal more sparkling in shades of aquamarine blue, it was freezing and we were grateful for the hot chocolate we picked up from a local café.
Cruising on the Grand Canal:
(The Pallazzos seen on our cruise along the Grand Canal showed a variety of architectural styles)
Then we were heading on foot towards the Rialto Bridge (left) to board the vaporetto that would take us on a leisurely cruise along the Grand Canal allowing us to admire the intricate architectural details of the many sprawling palazzos (palaces) that line its banks. Equipped with our DK Eye Witness guidebook that provided information on each of them, Amy and I cruised along taking in the sights offered by such famous ones as Ca’ Rezonnico, once home of poet Robert Browning, Palazzo Grassi, Palazzo Barbaro where novelist Henry James wrote The Aspern Papers, Palazzo Dario with its beautiful colored marbles, Palazzo Venier dei Leoni where the American art collector Peggy Guggenheim had once lived (now converted into a museum housing the Guggenheim Collection) and Palazzo Gritti-Pisani, now a deluxe hotel.
At each water ‘bus-stop’, passengers embarked and alighted allowing opportunities to take pictures galore on what was a particularly clear day. When the vaporetto arrived at the mouth of the Grand Canal near the huge Church of Santa Maria del Salute with its imposing dome that dominates the city’s skyline, it turned around and went back the way it had arrived. Amy and I stayed on past the dramatically lovely Rialto Bridge seeing more wonderful palazzos, most of which have been converted into museums and art galleries. I cannot recommend this enough as a way to get oriented to the city and, if one’s stay is short, to see as much as possible in such a brief time-span.
Then, we headed on foot to see the Church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frati (usually known simply as ‘Frati’) which contains some amazing sculpture and paintings. Having arrived at its entrance, I realized that I had seen it five years ago and declined to explore it again. Instead, Amy and I headed back to the Rialto Bridge to meet up with Mahnaz who had spent the morning at the Palazzo Grassi where a special exhibition on ‘Rome and the Barbarians’ was being held. After we said our fond goodbyes to Mahnaz who was returning to Florence that evening, Amy and I boarded a vaporetto to the Island of Murano as we had been tempted throughout our stay by the mouthwatering glass jewelry to be found in every second shop front in Venice.
Venetian Art in the Accademia:
The next day dawned dreadfully wet and freezing cold and was the perfect kind in which to visit a museum. After a quick breakfast of hot chocolate and a chocolate brioche, we headed towards the Accademia di Belle Arte (known in short as the Accademia) which houses the finest collection of Venetian art in the world. Having arrived there about 9.15 am, we pretty much had the museum to ourselves for the first couple of hours which permitted us to browse through the Highlights using our guidebooks and the museum notes available in each room. Happily, we discovered that entrance to the museum is free of charge—a welcome change after all the money we’d been doling out to see the sights.
We spent the next two hours enthralled by the fabulous works of art. Though this museum is small, the collection is stunning, displaying works by artists I had not seen anywhere else. Take the Madonnas, for instance, by Giovanni Bellini, of which there were at least eight in the museum, all grouped together in one room. They were just unbelievable in their vividness of color and detail. What is remarkable is that so much money has been spent, in recent years, to clean and restore these works and we felt so fortunate to see them as they glinted and gleamed in the excellent lighting of the various galleries. The most dominant painting in this museum is Paolo Veronese’s Feast in the House of Levi which is so monumental that it entirely covers one wall in a long and palatial gallery. Other surprises in store for me were the marvelous collection of paintings by Vittore Carpaccio presenting processional scenes associated with the Legend of St. Ursula and with the miracles associated with the Relics of the True Cross. Particularly amazing was the one featuring the procession in Piazza San Marco. Having visited it the previous day, I could appreciate the depth of detail that made up the scene.
Of course, the most famous of the works in the Accademia is The Tempest by Giorgione which is considered one of the finest early landscapes. Though this is a rather small painting, it does attract a great deal of attention. Marina Vaizey includes it among her 100 Masterpieces of Art.
In search of yet another one of Vaizey’s masterpieces, Amy and I then made our way to the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni to see the cycle of paintings by Vittore Carpaccio depicting the lives of Saints George, Jerome and Augustine. For 3 Euros, visitors are allowed into the tiny church that sits on the banks of a narrow canal. Executed between 1503 and 1508, they exhibit the great talents of Carpaccio. Of these, the last painting of St. Augustine in his Study is the masterpiece that Vaizey picked for her book. A little-known painting, it is quite remarkable for the realism with which the saint who is known for his erudition as “The Doctor of the Church”, is presented at work when he sees a vision of St. Jerome that he interprets as informing him of the exact moment of the saint’s martyrdom.
Bird’s Eye Views of Venice:
The next day, we made a bee-line for the Campanile at San Marco hoping to get some good pictures from the top of the bell-tower. To our astonishment, we found that there was no line and with a takeaway breakfast in our hands, we paid the 8 Euros that got us to the observation deck, thankfully, not by climbing 500 steps but in an elevator! What a relief that was!
The sun was hidden that morning under an overcast sky which really provided ideal lighting conditions for taking pictures and I clicked a great many. I love views of the world from hundreds of feet up in the air (left) and when I saw the domes of the Basilica, the Grand Canal as it winds its way to the sea, the grand Palladian Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, I realized how wealthy this city once was and how glorious is the legacy it has left the world.
Peggy Guggenheim’s Collection:
Then, we were down on Mother Earth again, making our way through a winding maze of narrow streets, picturesque canals and romantic bridges to the Peggy Guggenheim Museum which houses her personal collection of Modern Art in an unfinished palazzo on the Grand Canal that is only one-storey high (left) . Anyone who has heard the name Peggy Guggenheim knows that she was a flamboyant American woman who made Venice her home, encouraged and bought the works of abstract artists at a time when they were unknown to the rest of the world, displayed them in her Venetian palazzo on the water where she often invited them for visits to discuss their work and their vision. Peggy’s own daughter Pegeen Vail died at 24, a budding artist herself, and the home displays some of her early work.
As we joined the vast numbers of art lovers who make a pilgrimage to the Guggenheim home each day, we had the chance to do three things: see one of the foremost private collections of Modern Art in the world, stroll through a real Venetian palazzo (left) to get a glimpse of it on the inside and see the Grand Canal from a completely different perspective—from a patio on its banks. After paying the 10 Euro entry fee that came with a plan of the house (the place is run entirely by American interns studying at Venice’s many art schools), we toured the beautiful gardens with their impressive collection of sculpture by Giacometti, Brancussi and Henry Moore, among others.
Then, we entered the house and walked from one room to the next taking in the canvasses on the wall by Picasso and Braque, Miro, Mondrian, Chagall, Dali, Leger, Kandinsky and several other iconic names from the twentieth century art world. I was charmed to see that while Guggenheim’s taste in art was modern and abstract, her taste in furniture was antique. Her dining table and chairs, for instance, date from the Medieval period and contrasted beautifully with the Picassos and Duchamps that graced the walls.
Outside on the patio that overlooked the Grand Canal was one of the collection’s most notorious works, Marino Marini’s Angelo delle Citta (Angel of the Citadel–(left), which portrays an ecstatic young man on a horse overlooking the water. I could not stop taking pictures of the Canal from the patio for it did present one of the most charming vignettes of Venice that I had seen so far—in a city in which I was charmed at every street corner!
A pair of ancient sculpted horses decorated the patio (left) and were another contrast to the Abstract sculpture seen indoors, such as Brancussi’s Bird in Space.
But perhaps what Amy and I found most interesting about the museum was something that is barely talked about at all—the amazing collection of black and white pictures on the walls of the cafeteria. Had we not stopped there for a coffee, we would never have seen these interesting groups of twentieth century artists who met at the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni (as the Guggenheim palazzo was known) for frequent tete-a-tetes, thanks to the sponsorship of their generous patroness. I would heartily recommend that all visitors to the museum even remotely interested in the history of modern art visit this space and spend a few moments in quiet contemplation as they survey beautifully candid pictures of some of the most gigantic artists of our time.
The gardens also houses a small memorial to Peggy Guggenheim who was buried in the grounds alongside her beloved pet dogs whose names are carefully carved on the memorial stone embedded in the wall (left) . On an Italian trip that had allowed us to study a surfeit of Medieval and Renaissance works, it was almost a relief to come upon the Abstract Art collection of this eccentric American woman who brought a splash of flamboyance to the Grand Canal with her larger-than-life size personality and her defiant taste in the works of contemporary masters.
Sailing to the Lido:
That afternoon, we returned to Murano to spend more leisurely hours among its breathtaking glass treasures. Then, with the evening still ahead of us and night having fallen over the city, we decided to take the vaporetto to visit the Lido, most famous among the islands for its beaches.
In all of Italy, nothing could have been to us more disappointing. When we alighted from the vaporetto, we walked along a glitzy promenade towards the beach made famous by Thomas Mann’s novel Death in Venice. The road was lined with shops serving boutique-style clothing and designer merchandise but with none of the classiness that we had seen in Lucca or Sorrento or Capri. Everything somehow seemed crass. All display signs and prices were in English. Everywhere we looked were groups of loud Americans making a spectacle of themselves. Even at the gelateria which, apparently, caters to this moneyed clientele, Americans crowded around, laughing boisterously and bringing home to us with an unpleasant rudeness the fact that after two weeks of traveling in the country, we had left Italy behind us and arrived in some ritzy Floridian resort such as Palm Beach or Naples. We had spent less than an hour in this place, in which the appearance of cars on the street (the Lido is the only Venetian island on which cars are allowed to ply) made us long for the medieval quaintness of San Marco and Guidecca.
Amy said, “Ok, that’s it. Let’s go back to Italy”. We couldn’t get away from there soon enough. So, I guess, I need to ask myself what all the fuss is about. Having actually gone to the Lido, I must say I was not the slightest bit impressed and should I want to see and experience what I did there, I know that all I have to do is go to Atlantic City or any one of the beach resorts on the Atlantic seaboard in the USA!
Sailing to Murano:
The island of Murano has far more interest than does the Lido. It is not far away from the island of San Marco, as the crow flies. But when one takes the vaporetto, it is a long journey indeed taking more than a hour to get there. By the time we disembarked, most of the day’s crowds were wending their way back to the main island. Shops had almost ended their sales for the day. This allowed us to admire the environs of Murano and to resolve to return on another day when we could allow ourselves the luxury of more time to admire the glass jewelry.
Despite the fact that our forays into the stores were hurried, I managed to find myself the most gorgeous glass necklace made of handblown beads. The aquamarine colors of the beads reminded me so much of the dazzling blue of the water in the canals and I felt that I simply had to have it. Alternating with white beads, the insides of which were filled with pure gold leaf, I found the necklace simply mesmerizing. However, since it was a pricey buy, I decided to sleep on the purchase. If I still felt as if I wanted to buy it the next day, I would. If not, well…perhaps it was not meant to be mine.
When we returned to Murano, the next day, the island was more crowded. Business was brisk in the stores as people succumbed to the enticements offered by a craft form that has existed on the island since the Middle Ages. In fact, Murano is so reputed for its glass works and foundries that demonstrations take place all day and visitors can actually see the techniques that go into the making of the masterpieces. While Amy and I zeroed in on the jewelry, whole sets of glasses in jewel colors (ruby red and emerald green, for instance, that cost hundreds of dollars), animals and birds fashioned in designs that include gold dust are displayed superbly on the shelves of the many showrooms. There is also a Museum of glassware containing glass objects that go back to Etruscan times. The artistry and craftsmanship involved in the design and execution of really delicate pieces of glass can best be appreciated when one sees the glassblowers in action working with material that is heated to thousands of degrees and cooled quickly.
Needless to say, I made a beeline to my jewelry store to see if the aquamarine necklace was still available for I had been thinking of it all night and decided that I must have it, after all. How delighted I was to see it awaiting my attention and, within minutes, it was all wrapped up and I was carrying it home with me—truly one of the fondest purchases I made on the trip.
Murano will also remain in my memory as a quiet and serene island, full of charming canal banks and interesting stores.
Goodbye to Venice:
Before we returned to Guidecca where we called it a night, we did make sure we stopped brieflyat Gelateria Nico at San Zaccaria to buy ourselves gelato which is reputedly the best in Venice–and it was most certainly a reputation that is well-deserved. We felt sorry that our Venetian rhapsody had come to an end.
Venice is so utterly glorious a city that it is hard to express how easily it can find a place in the coldest of hearts. So unusual in its layout, so unique in the architectural vision which has constructed the city around a series of canals and lagoons, so ingenious in the manner in which normal, non-tourist life seems to continue each day—imagine going to work daily in a water-bus—this city’s future can only be guessed. Against the soothsayers who predict that it will, one day, cease to exist (for it is apparently sinking into the ocean) are the optimists who believe that nothing so beautiful can just perish from the earth.
I was glad that I had the chance to experience Venice at leisure. None of my previous hurried visits to the city allowed me to truly appreciate its intricacies.
This time round, though I did not tour the Doges Palace, I did examine the building’s exterior, took , took the mandatory picture with the Bridge of Sighs (right) in the background and the one of the Drunken Noah lolling around one of the corners, carved in stone (left).
Of all the cities in the world, this one can be explored entirely on your own two feet. Be prepared to get lost frequently, to consult your map at every street corner, to find yourself exhausted from all the miles you will walk without even knowing it and for the fact that you will make slow progress as you pause every few seconds to admire a balcony here or a bridge there.
To follow Amy and me on the last and final leg of our travels in Padua, Italy, please click on the link below.